It was a clear day in Cuetzalan the day the voladores took flight. Years later, that was what Manny thought of as he and his fellow window washer, David, dangled sixty-eight stories above the ground, contemplating the drop.
Manny thought it in a flash, prayer-like, the moment the cable slid, the moment the creak, the shriek, and the drop caused the sound of their own voices to break the relative quiet of the high, cold air. Now, the skeletal steel rig they knew so well hung lopsided above the city, but Manny’s churning stomach had settled a little, the adrenaline in his veins had slowed. Huddled together at a tilt, the pair had had fifteen minutes to adjust to their new predicament. The rig was stable. They weren’t going anywhere—not for the moment, at least. There was nothing to do but wait now, though fuck, this was high.
Cuetzalan, Manny thought once more, perhaps this time an incantation. Had it really been just fifteen minutes? He hadn’t exactly been checking his watch. Or maybe it was just ten minutes, or five, maybe fewer than that, or maybe—because time is so strange that way—maybe it was just a moment ago that he’d held the squeegee in his hand, had been drawing it mindlessly against the glass, oblivious to the grey-grit rivulets that trickled downward with every swipe. It could’ve been a moment ago, but it could have been millions of years, perhaps the time of the dinosaurs, a whole literal geologic era before there was ever a need for a new building at 1 World Trade Center. There wouldn’t be any buildings here yet, only an island, maybe a marshland, maybe nothing at all, and maybe back then the air was clean, maybe the Hudson was blue.
Manny looked down at the red bucket that had fallen on its side beneath his feet. When the cable slid, the bucket capsized. It had emptied half its contents down onto the sidewalk in a slow, graceful arc: the grey-brown grime, diluted with suds and laced with the smog and exhales and decay of millions of people in transit. All of that and the water too had bowed to gravity, sliding to the edge of the rig, plummeting through the November air to the earth below. Manny wondered if it hit anyone, if it hurt. When he was a child, his mother told him that dropping a penny from the top of the Empire State Building could kill a man, and Manny had believed her. But then, when they went home, when he excitedly told his sister about the power of a small slice of copper, Diana only laughed at him and ruffled his hair, disproving the theory with a simple internet search. She was four years older than Manny, and she was good at it.
“Don’t be stupid, cariño.” Diana often used their mother’s words of affection to give her own an unfortunate sting. “You’ve got to weigh way more than a penny if you’re going to kill somebody with gravity.”
Their mother often said Diana got her spark—and spark, not snark, it was to her, though for Manny, being on the incoming end, there was little difference—from her father, who’d died in a car accident when Diana was two. Manny’s and Diana’s fathers were both born in the States and so were they, but their mother, Julieta, had been born and raised in Mexico, in Cuetzalan and then Puebla, had come to America on a temporary visa when she was eighteen for the money, the work, the adventure. She’d gotten a job as a nanny through an agency, had long been a permanent resident but didn’t take the citizenship test until Manny was almost twelve. Julieta often talked about Mexico, telling Manny and his sister stories about sus padres, sus abuelitos, and about the rough, slow road that broke from the highway outside Puebla and wound into the mountains toward Cuetzalan. There, she said, were pyramids, were waterfalls, were banana leaves the size of Manny himself. Since they’d been born, she’d only been back once, without them, for a funeral. Manny had been too little to remember, but Diana had been seven and was hurt. Now, she was fourteen and over it.
“They’re big but not that big,” Diana said the first time Manny told her about the banana leaves, but she’d waited until after their mother left the room. Diana was just back from soccer practice, still in her sweats, her raucous curls piled on top of her head. As usual, she headed straight for the computer, sliding into the old kitchen chair next to the little side table they used as a desk. She turned on the hulking monitor, and soon the jangle of the dial-up modem filled the quiet house. Diana pushed her glasses up her nose. “Mira,” she said, mocking. “Come look.”
Manny walked over to where his sister sat at their stuttering desktop. When the images loaded, Manny’s eyes grew. The big, green leaves looked like a scene from Jurassic Park. “They’re huge.”
“Yeah, they’re huge but not as big as you.”
“Bigger than my head, though.”
Manny frowned. “Like, a lot bigger.”
“Yeah, I just wish Mom wouldn’t talk it up so much. It’s embarrassing.”
“Don’t do that. You sound like an old man.”
“That’s just Mom.”
What Manny never told his sister, what he had already learned to keep protected, to himself, was that he loved how their mother, Julieta, would change when she talked about home, as though it were hers and not theirs but maybe could be theirs someday, maybe, quizás, if they were open and curious and willing—and also could convince her they wouldn’t bicker for six hours straight on an airplane. When their mother talked about Cuetzalan especially, it was like the room got brighter, like the air cleared, like their place in the world was a bit lighter but a bit sadder too, in a way that Manny somehow didn’t mind. Julieta smiled more, seemed to disappear yet be more present. Even her corkscrew hair seemed curlier, like it could spiral closer to the sky. She used to be like that around Manny’s dad when he came home from work. She wasn’t anymore.
Diana closed the page with the banana leaves and opened Napster. Usher’s latest, “U Remind Me,” was the furthest along, the red bar hovering stubbornly at twelve percent. She scowled. “Well, I wish Mom would stick to reality.”
Manny glared at her. “Well, I don’t. It’s boring, like you.” He turned and skulked out of the room. Behind him, he heard Diana get up and turn on TRL.
Diana still loved Usher now, more than a decade later, though as the notes of “Climax” drifted to Manny’s ears, he mostly wondered how the hell the man could hit the notes he did.
His partner, however, had a different kind of height on his mind.
“Shit,” David said, his voice pulling Manny back into the present. His partner was adjusting himself in the rig, making sure the treads of his boots had traction on its steel bars. “Goddammit, we’re high.”
David often liked to state the obvious, and today was no different. The skyscraper they were working on stood exactly 1,776 feet above the earth, if you counted the weird, spiky antenna—and you were supposed to. It was taller than the Empire State Building, taller than any building in the Western hemisphere. And though Manny and David were still thirty-six stories below its staggering top, they were high enough. If either of them fell from where they were, stranded inside the scaffolding rig whose left side now hung twenty-five feet lower than the right, they could do some harm. It’d end badly for them, certainly.
And so, Manny and his partner had braced themselves in the rig’s corners, were grateful to be harnessed in. The rig looked like the stalwart skeleton of a boxcar, like maybe something hobos would use if they wanted to trade train tracks for flight. It wasn’t ideal, but they were safe for now, made do. Physically, the men were opposites: David was blonde and tall, and the first time Manny saw him, he’d thought he’d be too waifish for the work. Manny was short, moreno, and built like a rugby player. And so, David had folded his lanky frame into the new contours of their space, as accommodating as a creased slip of paper, while Manny wedged himself in a corner where he felt more secure. At the end of the day, they were both young dads who liked heights—usually—and were in this for the thrill as much as for the money, which wasn’t great but beat the service industry. In a job filled with men ten, twenty years their senior, they were close.
A fresh gust of wind crested through the high tunnels of lower Manhattan. David’s face dropped, and Manny curled his fingers around the rig’s cold steel bars. Neither of them liked the reminder that the rig could loll. David adjusted his position again. “You’re strapped in, right, man?”
Manny smiled tightly, gave the smaller cable that tethered him to the rig a tug. “If this rig falls, we all fall.”
“Fuck you,” David said. “You know I didn’t even say goodbye to Lisa this morning? I just—”
“Come on, they’re going to be here in, like, an hour.”
“I didn’t even say goodbye to her. She was sleeping.”
“Well, yeah, she was sleeping, it was, what, 5 a.m.?”
“It’s fine, man. They’re on their way. At least you didn’t drop the radio.” They’d used it to call for help, though the startled faces and ensuing scramble of those in the office opposite them implied they weren’t the only ones. The office windows they were cleaning didn’t open. They couldn’t just be pulled in.
David had gone quiet, his face drawn.
“If you panic, it only gets worse.”
At that, David laughed. “Easy for you to say.” But, he nodded, forced a smile.
Manny rubbed his hands together, smacked fist to palm a couple of times. He looked at the windows across from them, where men and women in business casual were struggling to go back to work. Manny looked for the woman who’d appeared at the window right after it happened: short, morena like him, in a red sweater, white blouse, grey skirt. Amid his and David’s initial panicked fumbling, and among the office workers fluttering at the windows, pointing and reaching for their phones, the young woman had taken a sheet of paper and a black Sharpie, had written something in a large, firm scrawl and pressed it to the windows. In English: HELP IS COMING. Her brown eyes were shaded black and cool by the tinted windowpane. She looked like Manny’s mother. Their eyes met, and for a moment, the window glass seemed to shimmer, almost disappear. A trick of the light. The woman smiled at Manny, warm but worried, and he smiled back and nodded, just the once. The moment hung between them, the pair of them so high above the streets of Manhattan, separated by glass but close enough to touch.
“Help is coming, mi amor,” Julieta had said many years before, during another emergency, albeit one with lower stakes. She and Manny were sitting in uncomfortable grey chairs by the green submarine walls of an emergency room in a hospital he could no longer place. Still, then, there was the question of height. At the park after school, Manny had fallen from the adult monkey bars—a relic from decades past, meant for fitness programs, that he wasn’t supposed to climb. The other kids had dared him, called him a pussy, a word Manny didn’t fully understand yet but knew wasn’t good. So, he ascended the paint-chipped metal rungs, reached high for the slim metal bars, and swung himself into space. Dropped.
He felt himself slam into the earth even before he realized what had happened, even before he heard the snap. It was as though time itself had stretched itself, just slightly, just enough to stagger his shock.
Then: the pain.
Then: how he howled.
As he sat in that emergency room, his uninjured side pressed against his mother, he tried to be brave, to keep the salt from streaming down his face, the hiccups from rising like bubbles from his chest. “I’m sorry, Mami, I won’t do it again, I promise.”
“Oh, cariño.” His mother’s voice was a warm murmur muffled by his hair. Her lips pressed into the top of his head. “No, mi amor, you will, one day, of course you will.”
The throbbing in his elbow, his wrist, suggested otherwise. The hot, white streaks of pain. “No, I won’t. It’s too high.”
Julieta paused—even now he could still hear the silence—and then she said, “Did I ever tell you about the voladores de Cuetzalan?”
Manny shook his head.
“Mmm, I didn’t think so. Well. The voladores are the men who fly.”
Manny, all of seven, was immediately intrigued. “Like Superman?”
He heard the soft exhale of his mother’s smile. “Not exactly. They are Totonacs, an indigenous tribe. When I spent summers in my grandmother’s pueblo, we’d go see them every Saturday. All the time. I’m going to tell you a story now.”
And so, despite the pain, Manny quieted.
“Voladores,” Julieta said, “means ‘flying men.’ And that’s what they do. But, they don’t fly just to fly—it’s a prayer for rain. They call it the danza. In the center of Cuetzalan, the town where I grew up, in the square by the church, there’s a very tall pole, thick like a tree trunk. And every Saturday, every single one, five men come to the square with a flute and a little drum, and they climb to the very top, and they dance.”
“Yes, mi amor, for rain and for tradition. They didn’t start the dance; it started hundreds of years ago. But, they keep it alive every week. And the crowds come every week to Cuetzalan and other pueblos in this part of Mexico. And these men climb to the very top, all the way up. One hundred feet tall. You have to picture it. Think now.” She paused. “Can you see it?”
“Kind of.” Not really, but Manny wanted her to keep going.
Julieta nodded, her chin pressing against his head. To this day, Manny remembered how she smelled of lavender and orange blossom, how she still smelled of lavender and orange blossom. “At the top of the pole, there’s a little railing. It looks like a little square fence on top that moves around the pole like a merry-go-round. The men sit on it when they get to the top, and once there, they tie a thick rope around their waists. The rope will hold them during the dance when they fly.”
“Aren’t they scared?” Manny could not imagine being so high in the air and not scared. He shifted, then winced and glanced at his arm, which he was trying to hold very still. Juliet gently adjusted the ice pack she held against his elbow.
“Hmm, are they scared.” His mother seemed to think through the syllables. “Well, my love, they might be, and they might not be. But, it doesn’t matter if they are scared. What matters is that if they are scared, they meet their fear with courage. So, even if they don’t like heights, they are brave in their prayer.”
Manny was quiet, but tears still leaked from his eyes, wetting his mother’s red T-shirt. The part of him still clenched tight around his heart was afraid, and the throbbing in his arm was afraid. But, Manny was surprised to realize that he himself was not. “What happens next?”
“Well,” Julieta said, and again he felt her smiling. “One of the men is a musician, and he sits in the middle and plays the flute. There, way up in the clear, blue sky, he and the other four men sit on this railing.”
“And then they fly?”
“Mmm. Not quite yet. They have a ceremony. The man with the flute, he stands alone on the very top of the pole. He’s not tied to anything. Nothing to keep him from falling. There is only enough space for his feet, but he stands up there, on the very top, and he begins to dance.”
“I bet he’s scared.”
Again, the exhale of a smile. “If he is very scared, then he is also very brave. He stands and he dances and he plays for a while the flute and a tiny drum at the same time. And then, very carefully, he sits back down.”
“And then they fly.”
Years later, Manny could still hear his mother’s soft chuckle at his impatience. “You are just like your dad. Yes, my love. Then they fly.”
“It’s very easy. They just lean back and let go.”
As if she could sense the furrow in his brow, Julieta paused. “Okay. Let me think. Do you remember when we went to Coney Island?”
“There’s that ride that you like with the chairs that spin in the air, around and around—”
“Yes! The swings. It’s kind of like that.”
“That’s how they fly?” Manny twisted to look up at his mother. That didn’t sound right. Surely, jumping was involved, a leap of some kind. His arm throbbed, and he winced, turned back around. “How?”
He felt his mother inhale. He waited for the next slow gust of words.
A nurse appeared before them in blue scrubs. Manny felt his mother straighten, gather herself, reach for her purse. He sat up reluctantly. The nurse smiled at him “Hey, kiddo, let’s get you patched up.”
For three long years after he cracked his radius and ulna and broke his wrist in three places, Manny desperately wanted to see the voladores for himself. He wanted to see this tangle of fear and courage, a tension he felt like bats in his chest whenever he faced jungle gyms at the park or a bully at school. It was a tension that made bravery feel hard to reach. How could someone place so much faith in resistance to gravity, all in the name of falling rain? He could not believe that where he could only see falling, there would be flight. He peppered his mother with questions, but his imagination, however big, could not translate the answers.
Then, the summer after he turned ten, Julieta made an announcement.
“We’re going to go see the danza,” she told Manny and Diana one late June day, breezing into the stifling kitchen, beaming. “Y la cascada y los pirámides, como ya les dije.”
Manny’s stomach fluttered, fearful, eager. Bats bursting into light.
“We don’t understand you when you talk to us like that,” Diana said, even though they did because the words were simple enough, because they weren’t dumb, could pick things up. “You never taught us Spanish.”
Manny shot his sister a look, but their mother didn’t even seem to be aware of them as she began to wash the dishes one by one. The clink of china sounded like music. She was humming.
“We have a dishwasher, you know.” Diana slouched in her seat. She was still smarting from missing a penalty kick at the last game in her summer league. It would have made a difference. “I want to stay here with Greg.”
Manny’s dad, Diana’s stepdad, did not speak Spanish, was the reason they didn’t, either. Julieta wanted everyone to be able to understand each other in her house.
“They’re like birds,” Julieta said, ignoring Diana completely. “They float. It’s beautiful, you’re going to love it.”
“Birds fly, they don’t float.”
“The one man, he stays at the top and plays music, and the others spin out, and the circles get bigger and bigger. They become part of the air. Like it’s nothing. You’re going to love it.”
Manny still couldn’t really picture it, but he didn’t care. “When are we going?”
August. A whole month and a half to wait. His heart was effervescent with longing.
“August? Mom, that’s Steph’s birthday party!” Diana’s arms flapped, flounced. Crossed. “I’m staying with Greg. You can’t make me.”
“We’re going in August,” Julieta repeated. She set down the plate and turned around slowly, still holding the dish towel. She dried her hands carefully. “All of us. You’re coming with us, mija. Greg is coming with us. We already talked about it. We already bought the flights.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Diana leapt to her feet. “That’s not fair! You didn’t even ask us! We have a family meeting if we’re even going out to dinner!”
“This was not a family decision,” Julieta said.
“How is it not? How’s Greg getting time off? He can’t just leave his job. Construction doesn’t stop just because it’s hot out. Is this even practical?”
“Practical.” Julieta lolled the word on her tongue, a warning tone. Manny noted it; Diana did not. “You’re going to meet your family for the first time in fourteen years, this is how you respond?”
Diana pursed her lips. “I guess I’m not getting a quinceañera, then. Like I don’t matter.”
“Man, Diana!” Manny vaulted to his feet, his chair scraping against the linoleum before falling back against the cupboards. “Why do you always have to be such an ungrateful bit—”
The dish towel thwapped him in the face before he finished the syllable, like his mother knew it was coming.
“Manuel Anthony Williams Gutierrez, you go to your room this moment!” Julieta’s voice snapped along with the towel. “Vete! Who put those words in your mouth? Your sister? And you,” she turned to Diana, “you—you’re only Mexican when you want to be, since when do you care about your quinceañera? You should be grateful we’re taking a vacation at all! This is your stepfather’s present to me after all these years of shit! We are taking a family vacation!”
Manny was pretty sure him picking up “bitch” was a collective effort, not just his sister’s. But, Diana’s eyes got really big, and she grabbed Manny by the shoulders and gave him a shove, and he didn’t need any more encouragement—the pair of them bolted from the room.
In the rig, Manny’s left arm twinged, a low cold ache edging from elbow to wrist, the air and wind and his time in it singing that long-ago day back to life. High above the city, he and David huddled next to each other, waiting.
“Goddammit, it’s cold,” David said. It seemed to bear repeating.
Manny didn’t usually mind the cold, sometimes even welcomed the ache it carried, because it was bearable and because he liked the memories it brought with it. But, here in the sky, today, the slow current of pain began to settle into something uncomfortable. He’d never climbed a mountain, but he wondered if this was what it was like to be at altitude, not as high as Everest but maybe as high as the volcanos he’d seen on the postcards his mother’s family sent on occasion: el Popo y la Izta, smoking and slumbering on the outskirts of Puebla, two long-ago lovers now frozen in stone.
He looked at David. His partner was pale. The hard hats they wore weren’t warm enough, and David was too thin to be so still, was shaking. Another gust of wind came rolling through the tunnels and the rig swayed slightly—so slightly—but both David and Manny gripped the steel around them a little tighter, checked their tethers, clenched their teeth.
Manny willed himself to be calm, breathe in, breathe out, breathe deep. They’d trained for this, knew this was a possibility. He tried not to think of his mother, of his daughter, Luciana—if this made the news, he was fucked. He would never hear the end of it from Julieta. Luci’s mother wasn’t in the picture. She’d never wanted children, not the way he did. If something happened to him, what would happen to Luci? Would she have to go out west, live with a woman she barely knew? He willed himself not to think of it, looked at David instead.
“We’re going to be all right,” Manny said. “You know that, right?”
“Is that for you or me?”
“Where are they?”
“They’ll be here, man. There’s, you know, traffic.” Manny gestured vaguely at the sky that hung across from them. He glanced in the office, thought of the woman with the sign. Her curly brown hair, fuzzy red sweater. How close they’d been to each other and yet apart.
David shook his head, and Manny knew what he was trying to pass off as annoyance was bravado.
“You talk to la jefa today?” David asked.
Julieta usually called on his lunch break. She babysat Diana’s two children and Luci, who was three. Julieta liked to check in, which usually involved her reminding Manny how she didn’t like thinking of her son up so high, that he really should consider getting a job that paid better, didn’t scare his mother so much. Her love for the danza was one thing; it was quite another for her baby boy to hang from a rig hundreds of feet in the air and call it a workday.
“I didn’t talk to her today yet, but she’s fine.”
“Yeah, man. Hanging in there. She’s going to freak if she sees this on the news, though.”
David shook his head. “Like she needs another thing.”
Manny nodded. A minute, maybe two, passed in the high quiet. Below them, car horns, the far-off sound of sirens.
“You have the talk yet?”
Manny frowned. This, a conversation from the previous week, from weeks before that, resurfacing. David had been pushing Manny to talk to Julieta about getting a home health aide for Greg, which Diana and her husband, both fresh out of law school, would presumably somehow pay for. Manny’s dad had been asthmatic for years. Now, cancer had come for him. He was hanging in there, but so were the cells that kept mutating in his lungs. They’d surrendered for a while then returned, sprawling and rapacious, hungering for bone.
“I’m just saying: your dad, the kids. It’s a lot.”
“No shit.” Manny didn’t feel like getting into it, didn’t like that he couldn’t really help. “Listen, she takes care of people. That’s who she is.”
David didn’t say anything. He knew Julieta well, and that included her stubborn streak. He and Manny worked together often, and often Julieta would have them both over for dinner Tuesday nights, called them “mis hijos” or “mi hijo y mi gringo,” depending on her mood.
“Hey, it’s not great,” Manny said, “but most days—”
David cut him off with a look then blew out a breath. “Tough bird.”
At that, Manny smiled. “She could run the fuckin’ army.” He shook his head. “It’s her call. You can’t force her.”
David nodded. “When my grandma got it, she was, like, old. And she smoked her whole life. Your dad’s in his fifties.” He paused. “Fifties, right?”
Manny thought for a moment. Fifty-four? Fifty-three? He had to think. “Fifty . . . five? Fifty-five.”
David laughed. “You don’t even know.”
“My brain’s frozen; ask me these things when we get down.”
Manny smiled, leaned back, pressed his back against the rig’s cold metal floor, which was now holding him upright. He shivered. Even when it was cold, even when it was precarious, he liked being up high, away from everything, suspended over the sidewalk and so much of the city, with so many bypassing lives underneath. He thought again of Cuetzalan, the flying men, wondered what it’d be like to swing out over this city, a city that seemed to stretch forever, metallic and cacophonous, forever supplanting what had come before. He thought of the giant banana leaves, bigger than his childhood imagination, sprawling so close to Puebla beneath bamboo and palm. He could not see them from here, of course not. But, he could see them.
Banana leaves, bamboo, and palm. For Manny, his family’s days in Cuetzalan were everything his mother had promised, from the winding streets to the low, tucked-away pyramids to la Iglesia de las Jarras, the church decorated with the clay jars used to make café de olla, the region’s spiced coffee. As they walked around the town center on a clear, late August day, the market hummed and bustled. Julieta bought them horchata and elote—corn on the cob on a stick, slathered in crema, paprika, and cotija cheese. Manny and Diana had eaten it often in Brooklyn, but it tasted different here. The crema, Julieta explained. It was made differently in Mexico. They bought tlacoyos for lunch and washed them down with grapefruit soda, and Diana bought fresh passion-fruit juice just because she could. They were in the town center, by the Spanish colonial church rimmed in palm trees, by the raised gazebo that overlooked the square.
“¿Quieren helado?” Greg asked them, trying out some of the only Spanish he knew, making Julieta smile. Manny and Diana said yes, of course, chocolate for him and fresa for her even though they’d eaten so much, couldn’t possibly eat any more, even though, it being August, the breeze was cool there in the mountains, almost too cool for ice cream. They didn’t care. Greg disappeared, off to butcher some Spanish, and Julieta beamed and led them to the stone steps of the square where the voladores would hold their danza, where the men would fly. The tall pole she’d spoken of, the one with the railing on top, stood in the middle of the square like the long trunk of a stripped tree. It could have been a telephone pole, a utility pole. It could have been anything else, but it was not.
They didn’t have to wait long. Greg returned not fifteen minutes later with two ice cream cones balanced in one hand and a beer in the other. He sat down on the grey stone steps next to Julieta. Manny sat with his mother to his right and his sister to his left, had no sooner taken the first lick of his chocolate cone when the voladores walked out.
He hadn’t seen them arrive. He knew they had because, next to him, he heard his mother’s breath catch, short and sharp. She straightened, and Manny turned to look.
The men had stepped into the square without introduction or fanfare. They wore red pants and white shirts and sashes embroidered with flowers, headdresses with multicolored ribbons that fluttered under the sky. They said nothing to the crowd that had gathered just for them, ignored the faces that watched them, rapt. Manny thought back to how he swung out on the monkey bars, how fast and suddenly he fell. The snap of his bones. For the first time, ten-year-old Manny realized the voladores were young, perhaps twice his age. And for the first time, with a thrum of electricity to his heart, he realized that they could die. And for what? For rain? Could they really request the weather? Would anyone listen if they fell?
He remembered what his mother had told him about the voladores in the emergency room that day. That they weren’t there to entertain. That it was a prayer. That their flying was for nobody else. They were asking Xipe Totec for rain, she’d said. Now, here, the men were doing exactly what Julieta had said they would do. As if oblivious to the crowd that had gathered, they took hold of a rope that led to their place in the sky. Step by step, one by one, using wooden slats nailed to the side of the trunk as footholds, the men climbed to the very top. They slipped inside the small square-shaped railing that encircled the trunk, like a merry-go-round. It was just large enough for them to lean against, to sit for a brief spell.
Then, just like Julieta had said he would, one of the voladores lifted himself above his comrades, stood on the small flat surface at the very, very top. His head, his shoulders, torso and waist—all towered above his comrades, his feet at the level of their heads. There was just enough space for his feet, no more. His balance would determine his life. And Manny would wonder, for years after, long before he could even put words to it, whether it was certainty or uncertainty that was blind.
One of the men sitting on the railing began to play: a flute, four beats to a measure; a melody, descending in pitch. There was the soft, steady thump of a small drum. The man stamped his feet in time, dancing in the sky. Manny felt the thrum in his chest again and a wave of nausea, perhaps vertigo. He looked down. He did not want to miss a moment, but he could not bear to watch. But then, somehow, the flute settled him. He had not expected the sound to be pitched so high, for it to be so beautiful. The questions it was asking did not seem borne of fear. He looked up again, watched the man stamp his feet, dancing in the center of his comrades, all of them indifferent to the crowd below.
“See, he’ll stay there,” Julieta leaned over, whispering to Manny and Diana. Her eyes, Manny knew, had never strayed from the sky. “He’ll dance a few moments more, and then he’ll stay at the top and take over the song.”
Manny and Diana nodded, transfixed.
The music continued, the man still dancing, but then, just as Julieta had said he would, he stopped and very carefully sat down. The five of them, together above the earth. Manny could not quite see the ropes that held the others, ropes tied tight with the crowd’s anticipation. The air was thick and heavy, electric, like before a storm. The voladores sat across from each other, their hands on the railing. From this distance, Manny could not see their faces. He couldn’t see any signal pass between them at all. But then, hands on the railing, the voladores leaned back into space.
And then, like love, like trust, but more than that, like it was easy, they just let go.
Manny’s breath caught in Cuetzalan that day, the same way it would catch years later in Manhattan, his breath snagged on a memory, on a flash of story, the lightness of it—here and now as then and there, the flying men. He sat in the square next to his mother and sister as he and David leaned in their rig, suspended on a breath. And the voladores took to the air and they spun. Gently, they spun, around and around the trunk of the tree, their ropes short at first, their circumference small, but then growing and lengthening, sprawling and spinning, with bodies lean and long, their bodies a prayer—for rain, for relief—unfurled to the sky.
The voladores spun, and they spun, and they spun, headfirst and in ever-widening arcs, around that trunk and through the clear, cool air. They spun as Manny and Diana stared, their ice cream forgotten. They spun as Julieta and Greg shared a warm beer, sat close enough to hold hands and finally did. They spun, and the flute played, and the crowd watched, and the birds flew above them, taking no heed. And throughout this, business continued in the market, another Saturday routine. And still the men spun, and they spun, and the flutist played his high, clear notes, his refrain spinning, too, creating its own circumference, its four-note beat, high and clear and descending, like the men in flight. Manny heard it then in Cuetzalan as he could hear it now in the rig. There was a drum too, just as his mother said there would be, a drum from somewhere Manny couldn’t see, perhaps with the flutist, perhaps inside of him, perhaps outside the square.
In Manhattan, Manny did not hear the firefighters as they arrived, as they radioed how they would cut into the windows’ shatterproof glass, how they would dismantle it slowly, in layers, with fire. He did not see how the flame licked the inside of the glass, blue heat, orange sparks, or how then, soon—the first layer gave way. He did not see how the firefighters gave them thumbs up or see David beam as he flashed the gesture back. He heard only the flutist, saw only their flight.
Yet, at the same time Manny heard the flutist, he also heard nothing at all, heard a silence inside himself encased in the hum of the world, a silence soft and generous, like marrow within bone. It was as though all the sounds of the world were strung into the ropes that kept the flying men airborne and tethered, safe from death. As though their deaths and consequently their lives depended entirely on this high-pitched, four-part vibrato, this song, this prayer. The voladores spun, and they spun, as they and others before them had spun for generations, had spun for hundreds of years, and some had died in the spinning. They spun now for the promise of rain and a fresh century, they spun and they spun, and everyone on the stone steps tipped their heads back on their necks and watched.
The sound of glass popping.
Manny’s gaze pulled from the sky, turned toward the firefighters. He was almost surprised to see them there. But, with work steady and focused, they’d cut diamond into glass. There were so many of them, surely so many more than were needed to save two window washers from a slipped cable. Manny looked again for the woman in the grey skirt and red sweater, but she was gone; perhaps she had never been there. The firefighters removed the glass.
Then, suddenly, down by Manny’s and David’s feet, so close yet so strange: yellow gloves and hands within them, bridging.
A spell breaking.
David first, then Manny, slow and careful, step by step to the edge of the rig, and then across, to the office. And the firefighters cheered, and the people working in the office cheered, and David cheered and Manny too, and they all shook hands and slapped backs, exchanged nods and smiles. There were paramedics; they sat Manny and David in wheelchairs, took their vitals. Manny looked once more for the woman with the sign, wanting to thank her, but there was no woman, no red sweater, no paper sign: HELP IS COMING. Help was here, but he could not see her.
Warmth inside Manny then, a different warmth, sharp and stinging, an aggressive, tingling heat. And suddenly, he knew what would follow, knew it would come fast and hard and more sudden than he’d like. Next: the hospital, treatment for the cold. Soon: home to Luci, to Julieta and her relief, to Greg and the lungs that could no longer hold him. To Diana and her husband. And then?
In the corner of his eye, a flash of red. And then he and David were pushed across the long office to the elevator. Buttons glowing, the pinched ding of arrival. Doors whooshing open.
On that day in Cuetzalan, the flute stopped. The absence of music was sudden and stark, a suddenness of finitude, suddenness of expanse. And Manny’s confusion, heat and panic in his veins. He was sure that something was wrong. Spinning and spinning, still spinning, the voladores were approaching the ground. But too fast. Fear melted ice down his spine. He looked around wildly. The men were still spinning, spinning headfirst, spinning headfirst in silence, closer and closer to the cold, hard ground. Surely, Manny thought, something was wrong. Surely, this sudden quiet was the sign of an end, the end, for the flight and the men and the rain they were calling for. Their prayer, a sacrifice. Bats in his chest. It was too much. He didn’t want to look away, but he had to.
“Ma—” he said, turning, but then his sister gently touched his arm and pointed.
“It’s okay, cariño,” she said, as she usually did, but this time she didn’t sound mean, this time there was no note of irony in her voice. “Mira.”
Manny looked. And his eyes finally found the reason the music had stopped, found the flutist, found that he too was descending one of the ropes that another of his brothers in flight was still spinning on. And Manny watched how, one by one, as if by signal, as if they knew the exact moment necessary to stop their heads from smashing into the ground, each volador simply flipped himself over and landed lightly on his feet. Perhaps he took a few running steps, no more, as though collecting himself from a jog. Perhaps he smiled, perhaps not. And then the flutist finished his descent down the rope, and he too turned over and leapt safely onto the ground.
The crowd burst into applause.
The voladores smiled then, but to themselves. They did not bow or otherwise acknowledge all those who had gathered to watch them. They untied themselves from their ropes, collected their equipment, and then, without a word, they left the plaza and were gone.
Julieta slid an arm around Manny’s shoulders, squeezing him tight, just as she had that day at the hospital. “Now you can say you saw the danza, cariño. A piece of my home.”
And Manny leaned against her, his joints collapsing against the softness of his mother’s body. And there in the square he caught memory’s hum: lavender and orange blossom, weather and warmth, sunlight and sky. His mother home, his family together and happy. He held this moment inside of him, cupped within the strong walls of his heart. This bubble of life would not clear the bats from his chest, not entirely, not for good, but something within him had shifted. A small piece of time had slid inside of him. No matter what happened, he would always have it.
Later that day, Manny and his family would all leave Cuetzalan and return to Puebla. That weekend, they’d say goodbye to the relatives they’d so recently met, and they’d return to New York.
One week later, school would start and with it, a warm September.